On Thursday, October 23, the US Department of The Interior proposed the designation of more than 200,000 square miles of land, sea and ice for the purposes of protecting the shrinking polar bear population. The proposed habitat runs along the northern coast of Alaska, and would be the largest single designation of protected habitat for any species, encompassing the entire range of the two polar bear populations that exist on American land and territorial waters.
Officials state that the cause of the bears shrinking range is directly related to the disappearance of sea ice caused by global warming. “Proposing critical habitat for this iconic species is one step in the right direction to help this species stave off extinction, recognizing that the greatest threat to the polar bear is the melting of sea ice caused by climate change,” said Thomas Strickland, the assistant interior secretary for fish, wildlife and parks.
It appears though, that the bears’ habitat will not be set aside as a refuge and that oil and gas exploration and other activities could in fact continue under the terms of the species act and other laws. Just this week the Shell Oil Company was given permission to drill in the proposed protected area.
Can this be an effective measure then? Conservation groups are concerned, with what appears to be good reason.
Were the designation approved, it would require any commercial interest to show that any proposed activity, including oil drilling or shipping, would not destroy or adversely affect the bears’ habitat or accelerate the extinction of the species. There are already concerns expressed by Alaskan officials that any such habitat protection will threaten the state's oil and gas industry.
Is this no more than recognizing a need for protected habitat? The Interior Department is required to publish a final critical-habitat rule by June 30, 2010.